Adventures in Storax

By K.J. Birney and A.J. Koh

A Tale of Two Resins

The styrax esteemed next to the above-named growths comes from Pisidia, Side, Cyprus and Cilicia, and that from Crete is rated lowest…In every nation a red colour and sticky consistency are preferred, and styrax that is brown and covered with white mould is considered inferior.

Pliny HN 12.126-129

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DSC_0189 Figure 1  Ethnobotanical Samples from Rhodes (L. orientalis) and Crete (S. officinalis), March 2018. Photo by Andrew Koh

Storax, also sometimes seen referred to as styrax, is one of the most widely attested organic commodities in antiquity, known for its intoxicating fragrance and its unique medicinal properties. The name “storax” has itself been the source of some confusion as it is sometimes applied to describe the reddish-brown, sticky aromatic resin from Liquidambar orientalis (sweetgum), often referred to today as “storax balsam”, or the paler, firmer sandy-brown resin from Styrax officinalis (snowbell), often referred to today as “storax benzoin”. This ambiguity is often glossed or overlooked in modern scholarship, and can make interpretation of ancient sources tricky.  In the quote from Pliny above, for example, it is unclear which of the two he means to describe: storax balsam from L. orientalis, or storax benzoin from S. officinalis. The Loeb translation of Pliny’s Natural History confuses terminology even further by adding in the margins “styrax (Storax officinalis)” – by which we presume the editors actually meant “storax (Styrax officinalis)” –  an explanation that also ignores the possibility that styrax could also refer to L. orientalis. Yet the variations in color and consistency Pliny describes could in fact reflect characteristics of the two different plants: L. orientalis matches nuanced descriptions of his “superior storax” while the white mold Pliny mentions is known to be a feature of today’s storax benzoin. It may be that Pliny is actually conflating the two, and simply employing “styrax”  as a generic name for any commodity produced from either of these resins, which could be sold at different levels of quality.

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Figure 2  Ethnographic Resin Samples from L. orientalis (left) and S. officinalis (right). Photo by Andrew Koh

Biblical sources pose a similar conundrum. Some scholars equate storax with Biblical stacte/nataf (στακτή, נָטָף), and most English translations offer this interpretation. Unlike L. orientalis which grows today on Rhodes and on the southwest Anatolian coast, S. officinalis was and remains plentiful in the Levant, and would seem more likely to be the botanical source. However, S. officinalis does not exude resin in the quality or quantity that matches descriptions of nataf, and indeed L. orientalis better corresponds to the biblical descriptions of stacte in terms of color, scent, and viscosity. As with Pliny, we must wonder whether the biblical sources are conflating the two resinous products. Yet is also possible that L. orientalis was desirable enough for its natural properties that it was worth importing into the Levant. This is one reason why the conflation of the two under the single gloss of “styrax/storax” is problematic: it obscures our ability to distinguish between local and imported resources. Moreover, while both sources of storax – from balsam or benzoin – have similar chemical properties, they are different enough chemically, in their physical expression, and in the processing steps required to extract their active ingredients, that the two are probably better suited to different uses (as we note below). This underscores the need for more careful assessment of these terms in ancient sources, and the importance of considering carefully their physical, chemical and regional descriptions, to properly identify the species described. Narrowing this down will not only illuminate commercial connections that may have gone previously unnoticed, but help us better to understand the many and varied uses of these two extraordinary resins. 

OpenARCHEM: Studies in Storax

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Figure 3  Phytochemical Extraction of Organic Residue References from Ethnobotanical Samples. Photo by Andrew Koh

Storax has recently been the focus of OpenARCHEM work on Crete, an island strongly associated with the origins of the plant (cf. Plut Lys. 28.4) – this despite Pliny’s snobbish derision of Cretan storax as being of a particularly low quality, at least relative to the excellent species grown in Rhodes. Storax resin was a well-known component of incense used in cultic environments, and was added as a spice to enhance the flavor of wines even as far back as the Middle Bronze Age, as at Kabri (Koh, Yasur-Landau, Cline 2014; Yasur-Landa et al. 2018). It was also used in a range of medical applications. One of the two species, L. orientalis, was widely used in antiquity  – in Classical, medieval and later Arabic sources – for medicinal purposes. Its smoke was inhaled as an expectorant (Dioscorides 1.79), it was applied as a plaster to heal wounds, or mixed with honey and drunk to treat chills, headache, and a variety of other ailments (Pliny 12.55, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, inter alia). The 9th century Arab physician Al-Razi, whose treatises relied heavily on the works of Dioscorides, describes the use of a similar paste for wounds composed of liquidambar and opium, an addition which one imagines significantly enhanced its effects! The long tradition of storax’s use continues even until the 19th century, where at least one treatise (Ballard and Garrod 1846) tying Victorian practice to the Materia Medica describes a concoction of liquidambar, opium, and saffron to be taken in pill form.

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Figure 4  OpenARCHEM Team Members Chris Armstrong (left) and Derrek Joyce (right) Appreciating the Aromatic Virtues of Storax. Photo by Andrew Koh

So why was storax such an important element of many medical mixtures? The key lies in the chemistry. Storax’s antimicrobial properties have been linked to its high concentrations of benzoic acid and cinnamic acid (and its derivative cinnamaldehyde). This is true of both plants, although concentrations differ. These are compounds that have been shown to significantly inhibit both bacterial growth and even tumor cell line development in vitro, and are actively being studied for their potential as anticarcinogens (Liu et al. 1995; Akao et al. 2003; De et al. 2011; Sova 2012). The use of L. orientalis’ storax balsam as a plaster for wounds can be explained too by this unique blend of chemical and physical properties. Unlike storax benzoin from S. officinalis, which exudes from the tree as a dense gum or more solid resin, L. orientalis’ storax balsam exudes from cuts in the plant bark as an amber liquid (hence its nickname, liquidambar)  – and then hardens swiftly. Thus it could be smeared onto an injury as liquid plaster, which could then harden and protect the wound as it healed. Together with its naturally antimicrobial properties, storax balsam thus effectively served as a “botanical bandaid”, which may explain its long-term popularity as a treatment for wounds.

Ethnobotanical and Ethnohistorical Field Research

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Figure 5  Chapel of St. John in Aimonas (Crete), March 2018. Photo by Andrew Koh

As we have also been discovering, storax and its sources are a fascinating ethnobotanical and ethnohistorical study. Even today on Crete, storax has deep-rooted associations with both cult and healing. Two villages near Knossos boast chapels associated with sacred S. officinalis trees instrumental in healing rituals. At the chapel of St. John in Aimonas, located on a low hill just outside of the main town, the S. officinalis tree was specifically associated (in local legend) with the treatment of chills and seizures (rigi), and integrated with local Christian practice. Once a year at the feast of St. John the Righteous, sinners who had not confessed their sins were said to be overtaken by chills and spasms. The afflicted had to approach the chapel by passing through a small gate formed by two leaning boulders adjacent to the storax tree, and then hang a piece of cloth in the adjacent chapel. A similar ritual is associated with a different patron saint with a sacred tree (St. Phanourious) at Achlada just outside of Heraklion. There the tradition is explained that the afflicted would leave an offering of clothing at the sacred tree itself in exchange for healing.  

At Astyraki –  a village actually named after the storax tree itself! – the tree is sited next to a  chapel of St. Constantine, and is marked by a plaque (Figure 1b) reading:

Styrakion, the mountain of Crete
the inhabitants (are called) Styrakitai
for Apollo was Styrakitis

…..The myth mentions that from this plant did the village take its name

The epithet “Styrakitian Apollo” is mentioned in the medieval source of Stephan of Byzantium (588:16), and indeed the first three lines of the Astyraki plaque nearly quote him word-for-word. It refers to a local Cretan tradition in which Apollo is recognized as a vegetation god, manifest as a tree (“Styrakit”). Thus although the nearby chapel in Astyraki is dedicated to St. Constantine, in whose care the afflicted are treated with storax, it is Apollo, god of healing, who gets top billing. These chapels, dedicated as they are to different saints, seem to capture a cultural memory of storax used in specific connection with both cult and healing, one which likely precedes the arrival of Christianity and may have roots as deep as the Bronze Age.

While Apollo’s birthplace is traditionally the island of Delos, scholars have discussed the possible Cretan connections with his cult, particularly in his avatar as a healer, a relationship noted from Homer and Hesiod onwards. Of particular interest in this vein is the relationship between Apollo and Paeion, a name which has been considered either an epithet of Apollo or the name of a separate healing divinity closely related to Apollo (Huxley 1975). Twice in the Iliad, Paeion (or Apollo-as-Paeion) sprinkles painkilling drugs (“ὀδυνήφατα φάρμακα πάσσεν”, 5.400, 5. 900) upon the wounds of injured gods. Intriguingly, the name of Paeion also appears in a list of divine names in LMII-III Linear B tablets from Knossos itself (Ventris and Chadwick 1956: 311, n.208). One wonders whether liquid storax might have been one of the key components of this divine pharmakon. As the OpenARCHEM project continues its work on ritual vessels from the cult site of Knossos, we are deeply interested in the local ecology, histories and practices which may enrich our understanding of religious practice on Crete.


Welcome to Full Spectrum…..and stay tuned for further adventures in storax!

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Figure 6  Co-Authors and Co-Directors of OpenARCHEM – Andrew Koh (left) and Kate Birney (right) with S. officinalis at Aimonas (Crete), March 2018. Photo by Andrew Koh

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank Dr. Athanasia Kanta for supporting our storax research on Crete by guiding us to S. officinalis sources on the island and Dr. Ioannis Liritzis for providing L. orientalis samples from Rhodes. OpenARCHEM ethnobotanical and phytochemical research could not happen without its student participants, and we especially wish to thank organic chemistry team members Chris Armstrong, Jaquelin Aroujo, and Vanessa Ramirez along with Department of Chemistry chairs Dr. Barry Snider (Brandeis) and Dr. T. David Westmoreland (Wesleyan).

Works Cited

Akao, Y., Maruyama, H., Matsumoto, K., Ohguchi, K., Nishizawa, K., Sakamoto,T., Araki, Y., Mishima, S.Nozawa, Y. (2003). Cell growth inhibitory effect of cinnamic acid derivatives from propolis on human tumor cell lines. Biological and Pharmaceutical Bulletin, 26(7), 1057-1059.

Ballard, E., and Garrod, A. B. (1846). Elements of materia medica and therapeutics. Hogan and Thompson.

Bostock, J., and Riley, H. T. (eds.). (1938). Pliny the Elder, The Natural History. DOI: 10.4159/DLCL.pliny_elder-natural_history.1938.

De, P., Baltas, M., & Bedos-Belval, F. (2011). Cinnamic acid derivatives as anticancer agents-a review. Current medicinal chemistry, 18 (11), 1672-1703.

Huxley, G. (1975). Cretan Paiawones. Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Studies, 16(2), 119-124.

Koh, A. J. Yasur-Landau, A. and Cline, E. H. (2014). Characterizing a Middle Bronze Palatial Wine Cellar from Tel Kabri.” PLOS ONE. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0106406.

Liu, L., Hudgins, W. R., Shack, S., Yin, M. Q., & Samid, D. (1995). Cinnamic acid: a natural product with potential use in cancer intervention. International journal of cancer, 62(3), 345-350.

Sova, M. (2012). Antioxidant and antimicrobial activities of cinnamic acid derivatives. Mini reviews in medicinal chemistry, 12(8), 749-767.

Yasur-Landau, A., Cline, E. H., Koh, A. J., Ratzlaff, A., Goshen, N., Susnow, M., … & Crandall, A. M. (2018). The Wine Storage Complexes at the Middle Bronze II Palace of Tel Kabri: Results of the 2013 and 2015 Seasons. American Journal of Archaeology, 122(2), 309-338.